Shelley Widhalm

Archive for June, 2012|Monthly archive page

Achieving Tension in Storytelling

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on June 24, 2012 at 11:00 am

Tension in a short story or novel is part of what keeps readers turning the pages, as do the storytelling, plot line and character development.

The dictionary definition of tension is the act of stretching something tight, or the condition of being stretched or taut.

A story that is taut does not have extraneous words, characters, dialogue or plot elements. Every aspect of the story is directed toward the climax, or the peak or most intense part of the telling.

Tension, as defined by the dictionary, is the balance between strongly opposing elements.

In a story, those elements are the external and internal opposition to the protagonist’s or main character’s achievement of a goal.

External opposition could come from the other characters or life events blocking the main character from getting what he or she wants. Internal opposition comes from a character’s negative thoughts, insecurity, lack of focus or other emotional state.

Tension, in other words, is the result of character conflict. Internal conflicts are about characters, while external conflicts are about plot.

Tension is essential because it keeps readers reading. Readers have a reason to feel connected with the main character, because he or she is in conflict and has an unmet goal. The character’s life isn’t perfect, giving readers a way to commiserate.

Tension is that key element that drives a story forward and escalates as the story progresses. A story doesn’t advance by events happening one after the next, but by this escalation.

The tension, however, should not follow a constant upward line where things get more and more intense, even in fast-paced thrillers and crime novels.

Varying the tension, as well as the pace, adds interest and intrigue to the unfolding of the story. Changing the pace – the tempo or rate of the story’s progression – shows the different moods and action in the story.

A slow pace includes narration, description and digression, while a faster pace uses action and dialogue (which creates a lot of white space on the page, letting the eye speed across the words).

Slowing the pace here and there emphasizes important moments in the story, so readers can experience the emotional impact. Plus, it builds the story slowly to maximize the payoff, or the climax.


The Writer’s Time Out

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on June 17, 2012 at 11:00 am

Writing is an ego thing.

After 15 years of writing professionally as a journalist and writing poems and stories since my childhood, I’ve been off and on the rollercoaster of confidence.

I fell off during a basic composition class my freshman year of college. I got an F on the first essay and, because I was a “good writer,” thought the teacher was mistaken. I learned that I didn’t write clearly and concisely and had too many meandering sentences.

With every red mark, comment and edit I received, I incrementally gained a sense of the art and craft of writing.

Initially, I thought the way writers put sentences together seemed unachievable, particularly when the words juxtaposed unlike things into beautiful expression. I didn’t understand how writers identified, assembled and molded words to describe the narrative world.

As I wrote and read about writing, something clicked, and I started using metaphors, similes and other literary devices. I began to write comfortably in my own voice and developed a style.  

But as soon as I learned or realized something else about writing, I became uncomfortable. I had to pause and think about what I was doing, becoming a little stuck processing the information. I reflected on format, pacing, voice and the other elements of writing, wanting to improve and adapt.

This hyperawareness sometimes results in writer’s block, causing the confidence shakes.

I’ve self-diagnosed them in my current project, a novel called “Dropping Colors.” The cause may be the fact I’m near the halfway point.

In my last two or three writing sessions, I looked at the screen (not blank with the story already started) and wondered where my characters had gone. I couldn’t hear their voices, or feel them as real people.

I find all kinds of excuses and other things to do, such as writing this blog way ahead of schedule.

It’s like losing your keys or forgetting your purse somewhere. Where are those things? Are they as I left them? Life isn’t right until the essential components of identity and getting from point A and B are safely returned.

Thus, when my writer’s block ends I’m sure I’ll get back on the rollercoaster of confidence. I won’t be so self-conscious about every word, or bump, when I let experiencing and being and living be my ride.

Writing to 100 Percent

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Shyness, Writing on June 10, 2012 at 10:16 am

Though a bit arbitrary, the number 100 relates to the writing process, but not as profoundly as does “1.”

Page 1. Get started somehow, as long as you begin the process.

This is my 100th blog since I began writing in the format, six days short of my two-year anniversary on June 16, or 6 days from 6/16, which is equal to 10, or 1/10th of 100 (I like the pattern in the numbers here).

I initiated my blog, taking the advice from my writer’s magazines that aspiring authors need to have a platform, of which blogging and having a Website play a part (see

At first, my blog felt like homework. Called Shell’s Ink, I spent the first half-year talking about my dog, Zoey the Cute Dachshund. I blogged from Zoey’s perspective in Zoey’s Paw, developing a voice and character for a 9.5-pound long-haired miniature dachshund who thinks she’s Miss Princess.

In 2011, I learned that my blog had to have a theme and relate to my writing projects, so I blogged about shyness. One of my characters is shy, Maggie Cooper in “One April Day,” which I was editing at the time.

I took on a shyness challenge, doing things that scared me into being more outgoing and then writing about my experiences. The challenge worked – at least my friends and family were telling me that I didn’t seem shy, and I no longer felt that way.

This year, I’m blogging about 52 writing topics in 52 weeks. Like my shyness blog helped me get over the last fragments of shyness, my writing blog is helping me review each element of writing. Taking the time to think about those elements, such as minor plots, character arc and dialogue, is like coloring in the outlines, making my understanding more vivid and real.

What does all this have to do with 100?

I looked up the number and was reminded that 100 is the square of 10 and the basis of percentage. Currency is divided into 100 subunits. The construction of the Great Pyramid lasted 100 years. And in Christian literature, the number 100 symbolizes celestial beatitude.

The number 100 is part of a whole. A book can be written in a 100 days, or 30 during NaNoWriMo. Becoming a good, or actually great, writer requires writing 1 million words (100 X 100 X 100, or 100 to the 3rd power). And writing and editing a book, at least for me as a part-time novelist, takes 100 or so weeks – one year to write and one to edit.

One hundred is the number of perfection. It indicates 100 percent effort, 100 percent motivation, 100 percent not giving up, 100 percent hope.

It is 100 percent of putting your heart into this thing you love.

Writing without 100 becomes too hard, bringing up pain and the past and things you don’t want to think about or deal with, causing a giving up into numbers less than 100.

In other words, 100 is an absolute need to write because without it, you can’t breathe.

Catching onto Character Arc

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on June 3, 2012 at 11:00 am

As a story unfolds, so does the identity of the characters playing a part in the telling of that story.

The unfolding from the story’s beginning to the middle and to the end is called the arc, or the line of the story. The scenes within the arc build to the top, or the moment of highest tension, before sloping back down into some kind of resolution.

The story arc includes one or several character arcs, depending on how many main characters there are.

The character has to want something, or she already has what she wants and loses it.

The character arc is the line of movement in the story as this character faces her flaws, fears and limitations and overcomes them to get what she wants – or, in some cases, needs but does not initially recognize or acknowledge. The inner (or outer) journey she undergoes along the way causes growth and transformation of who she is.

In my novel “Changing Colors,” my main character Kate wants to replace her lost things from an apartment fire, but her obstacle comes in the form of antique stores and flea markets that don’t have anything except for a teddy bear, not enough to restore her sense of home.

Kate faces setbacks and forces of antagonism up until the crisis event, or climax. Those setbacks thwart her desires and trigger her fears.

As she is tested, her motives increase, giving purpose to her actions. She becomes more determined to overcome her problems and obstacles. At the climax, or her moment of truth, she will have to stay with the status quo and suffer the consequences or change to get something better. What that is for Kate, I haven’t yet figured out.

But I do know that as soon as Kate, or any main character, gets her want or need met, the story is over.